Beyond DevOps: Bringing Agile to the Enterprise. Why SAFe and Kanban are Leading the Way.

“Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.” Reed Hastings, Netflix

In the last 3 years, Agile has leaped beyond Software Development & IT to find receptive ears in the offices of important CEOs and their management teams. This time unlike what happened in the early 2000s the companies adopting Agile are large corporations that recognize the value that agility brings: happier customer, better collaboration, faster product cycles, and innovation.

Agile was born inside the world of Software Development[1] and IT, after the Agile Manifesto was released in 2001 it experienced high levels of adoption around the world, particularly in North America and Europe. Nowadays surveys put familiarity with Agile within IT departments at over 94%, most CIOs and CTOs have either adopted it already, or are in the process of improving or extending what they already have. In addition Agile is growing beyond software development into other key IT areas such as: Operations, Big Data, Cloud, Security and Agile Program Management. Why? In a word: success. Agile has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in case after case that it accelerates IT’s time to market, elevates software quality, increases customer satisfaction and helps build stronger morale and participation in IT.

This success in IT has not gone un-noticed. After almost 20 years of success finally CEOs, CMOs, and CFOs have grown interested in the CIOs “secret toolset.” In fact, the latest real world Agile Transformation are happening beyond software development at large corporations such as Comcast, FedEx, John Deere, Microsoft, Sony, Walmart, JP Morgan, Ericson and Barclay’s Bank.

What’s more last year the most important publication of traditional management: The Harvard Business Review did a landmark article entitled “Embracing Agile”[2] which shows without a doubt that Agile has crossed the chasm of early IT adopters and is now moving to become the new norm of modern management. This quote from that article makes the reasons why this is so quite clear:

“The spread of agile raises intriguing possibilities. What if a company could achieve positive returns with 50% more of its new-product introductions? What if marketing programs could generate 40% more customer inquiries? What if human resources could recruit 60% more of its highest-priority targets? What if twice as many workers were emotionally engaged in their jobs? Agile has brought these levels of improvement to IT. The opportunity in other parts of the company is substantial.”[2]

This trend goes far beyond DevOps which focuses on uniting the IT Division under a common umbrella of agility, technical excellence and efficiency. Agile for the whole company aims to bring the benefits of agility to the whole company.

Reasons for Agile in the Enterprise

Management has noticed that many of the reasons that made Agile adoption necessary for Software Development and IT have now become very real for their whole company, namely:

  • The Speed of Change.
    • Technology and having the Internet everywhere are dramatically changing all industries, especially by accelerating change. This acceleration in change has become an strategic threat, but also an opportunity, and even big businesses are affected[3]. Ray Kurzweil summarized the decades we are living this way: “the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress, which is a thousand times greater than the 20th century, which was no slouch to change.” [4]
    • Tesla is an example of a company that leverage the speed of change to their advantage, and now they are challenging traditional car manufacturers [5] Netflix is doing something similar with the movie and cable industry, and Apple did it with Nokia and Blackberry through the iPhone.
  • A Demanding and Well Informed Consumer.
    • Companies do not have the luxury of years between product launches, or lack of upgrades, consumers can usually switch with little or no effort between alternatives, we are living in the era of the fickle consumer [6]. Product Cycles are shrinking and Time to Market has become critical. Competitors appear from anywhere with frequent updates and innovations. Traditional 5-year planning has hit a wall, and there is a need for releasing products at least yearly, with cross-functional teams, and tight collaboration between product design, marketing, customers and software development. Agile offers a variety of ways to do all of this via many Agile methods and frameworks available today. In fact most startups today have embraced Agile already, and the established companies have noticed.

What is my Best Option to Embrace Agile Across my Whole Enterprise?

To answer this question, you need to know a bit more about the Agile methods and frameworks, that way you will understand your options. Let’s do a quick summary. During the first decade of Agile from 2001 to 2011 two Agile methods reached dominance: first Extreme Programming and nowadays Scrum. The former has waned considerably in influence, but continues to offer valuable technical practices for software development; while the latter has grown significantly in many software development areas and IT departments, IT industry surveys put Scrum adoption at about 58% versus other Agile alternatives today[7].

Limitations of Scrum

Despite Scrum’s success it has struggled to grow beyond IT and Software Development. Part of the reason is that it was initially designed for IT and software development, and the same ideas that made it succeed inside of IT make it hard to adopt in the larger enterprise. As I write this, I realize this may sound controversial to Scrum devotees, but let me assure you that I do like Scrum, furthermore I am a Certified ScrumMaster, so these lines come with much respect and experience with Scrum and many other Agile and Lean methods and frameworks.

Scrum is a transformational framework, in order for it to work it calls for a revolution to the way work used to be done. Key foundational parts of Scrum are:

  1. Small Team Focus. Scrum was designed to work with teams between 3 to 8 people. It has proven to work very well on this context, especially for software products.
  2. Self-Management. Which means the team largely organizes itself on the way it solves the challenges ahead. This usually means that other managers are either eliminated or converted into ScrumMasters.
  3. Three Roles within a Team. Scrum recognizes only three roles within a team: Developer, ScrumMaster and Product Owner. These are quite useful for the developing of software, but can very limiting in other contexts.
  4. Multi-functional Always. Meaning the team must have all the people it needs to build a product, or required functionality for a service.

Now within an IT organization that makes the effort to transform itself Scrum can bring many benefits such as increased speed of releases, happier product management and a happy customer.

However, beyond IT the transformational nature of Scrum becomes a challenge since every aspect of it brings a corresponding challenge and resistance:

  1. Political and Leadership Challenges from Management. They come as a consequence of Scrum’s demand for self-management, and a perceived lack of recognition of the value that management can add to the organization. This leads to friction and resistance from many business areas that see Scrum as a threat.
  2. High Cost of Adoption. Mainly because Scrum ignores specialist roles in a variety of industries (such as Data Scientists, Actuaries, Security Experts, Corporate Lawyers, Cloud Architects) calling instead for cross functional teams in all situations. Many companies can not accommodate this structure because of real budget constraints.
  3. No Portfolio or Large Team Agile Structure. Because Scrum was designed for small teams from 3 to 8 people it struggles once the teams become much larger. It has no built-in mechanism and Agile techniques for orchestrating large Agile teams of 100s or 1000s of people.

Attempts have been made to try to address these limitations from a Scrum centric view. The most well-known is Large Scale Scrum or LeSS[8], and although LeSS does address the needs for Portfolio or Large Teams it keeps the other two key limitations that I mentioned above, for that reason the amount of transformational effort they demand is significant, since they must deal with the management challenges that come from attempting enterprise wide self-management, and enterprise wide multi-functional teams. This article will not focus on LeSS for those two reasons, however if your organization is already heavily invested in Scrum, we recommend you evaluate LeSS, it may work for you. LeSS has talented, great people behind it.

Market Trends Among the Agile Scaling Frameworks for Large Organizations

VersionOne began tracking agility at scale three years ago in their 2015 Annual State of Agile. This is not ordinary survey, they received over 20,000 responses for their last 11th Annual report in 2017, and it keeps growing. We are grateful to them for continuing to share this valuable data, and we encourage you to participate on the current survey[9]. Since then they have published three surveys, and now we can finally examine some trends. We have analyzed their findings and created the chart below for your analysis, as you can see it shows that although initially “Scrum of Scrums” was the most popular option to scale agile, interest fell considerably and it now is slightly below SAFe. We think that part of the reason is the limitations we examined before on this article, and others related to the appearance of other competing alternatives.

On the other hand, the graphic shows that the Scaled Agile Framework[10] has steadily grown, without a doubt the market and the people of IT have noticed the extensive knowledge and experience it has accumulate to bring agility to large corporations, and big technology teams.


Agile at Scale Market Trends – Data VersionOne – Trend Analysis AgileLion Institute


Personally I believe there is no silver bullet for agility at scale, agility at the enterprise level is a significant challenge that should not exclude other ways beyond SAFe, Scrum and Kanban, a point I have written[11] about. However it is also true that SAFe does offer a compelling toolset for this particular mission, and the rest of this article will elaborate on this further.

SAFe – The Best of Scrum and Kanban Together to Achieve Business Wide Agility

SAFe builds on the strengths of both Scrum and Kanban, from Scrum it uses at the team level where it excels, from Kanban it leverages its flexibility, Lean Thinking, and visualization power to manage work at the portfolio and program levels.

Most people are familiar with Scrum, but few are familiar with Kanban[12]. So, let us elaborate: What does Kanban bring to the Program, Portfolio and Strategy levels that makes it valuable? Kanban adds three important features to achieve agility at scale:

  1. Acceptance of Business and IT Roles. Unlike Scrum, Kanban does not impose new roles or responsibilities, it works with what the organization has in place now. It improves from there. Kanban welcomes leadership and management, it sees both the team and management as key stakeholders in producing value.
  2. Visibility at the Program and Portfolio Level. Kanban boards bring visibility of work not just to the team level, but they unlock hierarchical, aggregated views into the Portfolio and Program levels. Boards can even map whole value streams across many companies.
  3. System Level Improvement of Value Streams. Kanban is able to understand, examine, and improve whole value streams, and large systems across many organizations and locations. This is possible thanks to the knowledge-base Kanban has received from Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, Toyota’s Production System and Lean Thinking over many decades.

It is quite likely that those advantages motivated over 71% of IT professionals surveyed by Gartner[13] to report that they are using Kanban to practice agility at scale. This also explains why SAFe has incorporated Kanban as the way to design their system for agility at the Program, Large Solution, and Portfolio levels.

To illustrate below is a sample SAFe portfolio view of initiatives a company is executing. Bear in mind that each card represented could be a whole board, in fact some software products allow you to drill-down from the portfolio level view, down to the team. Notice also that this level of visibility is facilitated by portolio level Kanban boards that are designed with SAFe in mind. The example from LeanKit shows a portfolio Kanban board[14] with SAFe.

SAFe Portfolio Kanban Board Example

SAFe Kanban Board Example from Leankit


SAFe leverages the 3 key advantages Kanban brings to the table to serve the enterprise. And coupled with SAFe’s support for Scrum it becomes a powerful framework. In the last 3 years, the Scaled Agile Framework has experienced steady growth and increased adoption, in part because of this pragmatic approach. Several case studies and customer stories are available such as the ones from: Sony Playstation, Rosetta Stone, HP Enterprise, TomTom, Accenture, Intel, John Deere, Phillips Medical, Astra Zeneca, and many more[15].

SAFe’s Secret Sauce

SAFe’s secret sauce is a deep understanding of large businesses, and organizations, they know their challenges, and also their pressing need to become faster, and more responsive than even before, they need business wide agility. This secret sauce is evident by the breadth of knowledge the framework has regarding enterprise roles, governance, compliance, and upper-management expectations in IT and beyond. SAFe welcomes specialists, PMOs, Project Managers, compliance officers, Security Specialists, and management. It provides a clear path to scale agility with the teams already available by leveraging its own know-how, Scrum and Kanban.

SAFe does not compromise agility, it emphasizes quality, efficient flow, high-throughput of value, and much more; but it fits the enterprise from the CEO down to a single software developer. That allows agility to become a Strategic Advantage!

On the subject of DevOps SAFe also embraces this increased efficiency for IT, the latest version of the framework has clear guidance on how to achieve this vision within the whole of IT, SAFe calls it the CALMeR approach to emphasize the connection between Culture, Automation, Lean flow, Measurement and ability to Recover from any release.[16]

SAFe is a vast Agile framework. So, if you ever see the Big Picture diagram either printed or on SAFe’s website you might feel intimidated, do realize however that what you are seeing is a blue-print for agility for organizations the size of Boeing or Walmart. SAFe is designed to accomodate large businesses with thousands of people, but it can also work with medium-size businesses, it starts above 50 people. For smaller organizations consider other Agile approaches like Kanban or Scrum, but if you are facing enterprise level challenges I encourage you to give SAFe a serious look, I think you will like what you find.

Finally if you would like to evaluate SAFe or Kanban to scale agile in any area of your IT organization, Agile PMO, Strategic Marketing, or across your whole company do consider us as your guide in this journey, we will always remain impartial in your search for Strategic Agility, we welcome Scrum[17], and we will work with you to find the best solution that fits your organization today.


  1. Agile Manifesto History Page, Feb. 2001 – Link
  2. Harvard Business Review – Embracing Agile by Darrell K. Rigby, Jeff Sutherland, Hirotaka Takeuchi, May 2016. Link
  3. What Does Fortune 500 Turnover Mean? by By Dane Stangler and Samuel Arbesman – Kauffman Foundation – June 2012 – Link
  4. Kurzweil Essays – Understanding the Accelerating Rate of Change, May 2003 – Link
  5. Forbes – Why every aspect of your business is about to change by Geoff Calvin, Oct. 2013 – Link
  6. Ad Age – Study: Consumers Get More Fickle Despite Billions Spent on Loyalty by Jack Neff, Feb. 2017 Link
  7. Version One – State of Agile Survey 11th Edition – Link
  8. Large Scale Scrum Website – Link
  9. VersioOne State of Agile Survey – Previous 2017 report, and also current call for participation – Link
  10. Scaled Agile Framework Website – Link
  11. Joseph Hurtado’s Personal Blog – August, 2017 – Link
  12. AgileLion Institute – Kanban Ace & Agile Introduction – Link
  13. Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Agile Planning Tools by Thomas E. Murphy, Mike West, Keith James Mann. – April 27, 2017. – Link
  14. Leankit Sample Kanban Boards – Notice the SAFe example. Link
  15. SAFe Case Studies – Link
  16. Scaled Agile Framework v4.5 on DevOps – Link
  17. AgileLion Institute – Improving Scrum with the Kanban-Ace Framework – Link
  18. Article Cover Image – New York Stock Exchange courtesy of George Rex – CC BY License.

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